Read an Excerpt
The Iron Maiden
Bio of a Space Tyrant, Volume Six
By Piers Anthony
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Piers Anthony
All rights reserved.
Spirit struggled with herself before approaching her brother. She did not want to bother him, but there was no other person she could truly trust. He had a special awareness that gave him an almost supernatural rapport with others, and that enabled him to relate to her as no other person could. But by similar token, she was more than a little in awe of him. Finally she thought of a way: she would make him a deal. Then it would be even, and she could get what she wanted.
He was in his room, studying. He was not impressive physically at age fourteen; he was thin, not tall, with brown hair and the swarthy Hispanic complexion. But he was very understanding, and that was perhaps what she liked best about him. He never laughed at her, in contrast to big sister Faith, and he never betrayed her confidences. Thus he was her model for social behavior; before she did anything different, she would ask herself whether Hope would do it, and if the answer was no, then she would not.
"Hope?" she inquired tentatively.
He looked up. "Spirit," he said, smiling. That encouraged her; there was something about him, a warmth that the smile enhanced. It wasn't her imagination, because she had seen others react positively to his presence; he was popular among classmates. Some kind of personal magnetism that radiated invisibly out from him and reflected from others. He could be a student leader if he wanted to be; so far he hadn't sought it.
"Hope, I want to make a deal."
He focused more alertly on her. "You don't have to do that, little sister. Just tell me what you want."
"No, this is something you maybe won't want to do, so I have to trade you for it. What do you want?"
He knew her well enough not to argue. "I want a good grade on this paper I'm studying for. I don't think you can help me there." He wasn't teasing her; he never did that unkindly. He had the courtesy to take her seriously, and she truly appreciated that. "Maybe if you tell me what you want, I can figure out a price for it."
"Okay. I want a finger whip."
"A finger whip. It's a little thing, sort of an invisible thread about a meter long with a bit of a weight on the end. It hooks to the middle finger, and you can flick it out so it stings someone."
"That's an odd toy."
"It's not a toy, it's a weapon. It really stings. A few of the kids have them, and I've got the marks to prove it." She showed two small welts on her left arm, that she had used to protect her body or face. "So if some tough boy comes, I can stop him."
Hope frowned. "If some tough boy comes, maybe you had better tell me, so I can intercede. I'm supposed to do that for Faith, now that's she's beautiful."
"I know. She needs protection. I don't have that problem, because I'm not pretty. I just don't like getting pushed around."
He gazed at her with that uncanny perception he had, as if seeing through her face and into her mind. It was another aspect of his gift; he could read people, and know their nature, and whether they were lying. It kept him out of a lot of trouble. Their parents were aware of this, which was probably why they had assigned him to protect Faith. Faith was so pretty she scintillated, and boys clustered around her, but she wasn't smart. Not the way Hope was. So Hope had to watch out for her, and she was under orders to heed him, which truly rankled her. To Faith, the only thing lowlier than a little brother was a little sister.
"You don't have that problem yet," Hope said. "But you will."
"Sure," she agreed derisively. Did he think she had never looked in a mirror?
"And I can't be with you all the time, so maybe you're right: you need to be able to defend yourself. I'll help you get the finger whip."
"Great!" she exclaimed, relieved, because he could have said no, and it would have been reasonable for him to do so. Hope was eminently reasonable, except when he wasn't. "What do you want in return?"
"Nothing, Spirit. You're my sister, and you have a reasonable need; that's enough."
"That's not a deal. I want it to be a fair exchange, so I don't owe you anything."
He smiled. "I think your gratitude will do."
"No it won't! You got that anyway."
"Then I'll take your support, at such time as I need it."
"You got it." He had that already, also, but now it was a legal commitment. If he ever needed her help, she would give it without limit.
"But I must debate something you said. Will you listen?"
That meant it was serious. She braced herself, ready for a lecture on the caution and responsibility any weapon required, even a finger whip. "Sure."
"You aren't not pretty."
This tumbled her brace, coming as it did from an unexpected direction. "I'm not what?"
"Faith is beautiful. You said that you are not pretty. You feel inferior to her because of that. You are mistaken."
He had scored, as he always did. But she had learned to listen to his words carefully, because sometimes he spoke so precisely that it was deceptive. "I'm mistaken? I'm not not pretty—but that doesn't mean I'm pretty. What's my mistake?"
"Remember, you said you would listen."
He was going to explain in some detail. In the past she had not always had patience with his explanations, because Hope was as smart as Faith was pretty, and Spirit was about as far behind him in that respect as she was behind Faith in looks. But this time she really wanted to have it, because he had touched a nerve. "My feet are anchored to the planet and my ears are locked open."
He reached out and patted her shoulder. Some might have thought this to be a condescending gesture, but it was as though an electrical charge passed from his hand to her body, providing a momentary thrill. She liked his touch, because he didn't touch unless he cared. "You are not pretty now, but that does not mean you are locked down. Faith was much the same, at your age, eleven, but in the following two years she changed significantly. Suddenly the boys were noticing her, and as she caught on and began prettifying herself, it got worse. The key was puberty. You are about to grow breasts and all the rest, and then you will perhaps be as pretty as
Faith, if you wish to work at it as she does."
This was hard to believe. "Work at it?"
"I think half of Faith's beauty is her body. The other half is the way she arranges her hair, applies makeup, the clothing she chooses, and her attitude. She makes a science of prettiness. I think you will have a similar body, but maybe not care to make a similar effort. You're not ugly or even plain, you're merely unfinished, and if you did your hair and face and clothing as she does, you would be pretty now-and beautiful in two years."
"You're fooling!" But he wasn't, and she knew it. She trusted his judgment; if he said she would be beautiful, then she would be. She felt an internal melting and shifting, for he had just taken down her biggest liability and granted her the potential for what she had feared would be forever beyond her reach.
Hope merely shook his head, gently, waiting for her acceptance to form and solidify. Then he spoke again. "Neither are you stupid. You are as smart as I am, only in a different way."
"But you can read and move people! I can't do that."
"You can organize, you have nerve, and you have a tough core. You learn rapidly and well. Those are good qualities."
He had addressed her unspoken concern: that she wasn't smart. Now she had two legs to stand on.
She felt herself brimming. "Oh, big brother, I—I'm going to—would you—?"
He spread his arms, and she turned and plumped into his lap, hugging against him. Then the tears came, while he held her firmly and patted her back with his fingers. Spirit seldom cried; in fact this was the first time in months. But her life had changed, by the power of his insight, and she couldn't handle it immediately.
After a time she sat up straight, still on his lap, and fished for a handkerchief. He found one and carefully wiped her face for her.
"Don't tell," she said.
He nodded, agreeing not to tell anyone that she had cried.
"I love you, big brother."
"And I love you, little sister."
"I'm going to kiss you. Don't tell."
He nodded again, and held still for her kiss. She planted her damp mouth against his and pressed close, suddenly taken by passion. The kiss endured, becoming ardent. The pleasure she had felt before at his touch spread through her body, fulfilling it in a fashion she did not understand but nevertheless reveled in. She had said she loved him; she had understated the case, if that was possible. He was, for this timeless moment, her world.
But she had to end it, because she had started it and it was thus her province to define the experience. Reluctantly she lifted her head back. Then, somehow ashamed, she got off his lap and ran from the room.
She had come for a deal for a finger whip, but gotten so much more, she just had to be alone for a while. She had to reassemble her psyche, orienting on the prospect of becoming lovely instead of plain. Of being halfway smart instead of dull. Two years—that wasn't much time to wait. To be even a little like Faith, and like Hope: now she dared dream.
They had exchanged professions of love, but while his had been familial, hers had been romantic. She did know the difference. She not only loved her brother, she desired him-and knew that that was out of line. Fortunately he was innocent in this respect, seeing her not only as his sister, but as an eleven year old girl, not realizing that her emotion preceded her body by a year or two. So she could hide the illicit nature of her feeling, even from him. Especially from him. She could conceal it because she had to. It was her second level secret.
Still, he had kissed back. So maybe he felt some of it, and shared some of her guilt. He would have something to bury, too. That made her feel better, ironically.
Next day they went to get the finger whip. It was Saturday, without school, and a carnival had come to the city-dome of Maraud. It was run by traveling Gypsies, and had all manner of marginal entertainments, such as sexy dancing girls, scary rides, and deceptive games of chance. The city authorities did not much approve of the carnivals, but they were so popular that there would have been civil unrest if they were banned. So they were officially ignored, and unofficially patronized by throngs.
There were people of all kinds here, white, black, red, yellow and all shades between, their cultures ranging similarly from Hispanic through French, American Indian, African, Mongolian, and Saxon. Maraud was a grab-bag of types, because it had originally been part of the Dominant Republic, then taken by pirates who settled it with a number of their captives. It had finally been assigned to Half-cal when the political lines were redrawn to move this entire region into what was politically expedient. Now its city government was Hispanic, with some token Creole to keep the national authorities off its back, and its divergent elements were slowly melding. That was all right with Spirit; she had friends of all persuasions at school, and knew that neither color nor culture defined the whole person. There were great guys and creeps in every section.
She led Hope to the booth where the key prizes were. A laser gun was mounted on the counter, fixed so that it could fire only forward, at a screen across which a number of images danced. Because this was technically classified as a game of chance, it was rated 12+. Only children age twelve or above could play it. Their ages were verified, so there could be no charges of cheating those below the age of partial consent.
This was where Hope came in. "One game," he said, and paid the fare of one dollar. Because the Gypsies traveled widely, they had standardized on Jupiter money rather than divergent local currencies. There were change makers throughout, so that dollars were easy to come by. However, the nation of Half-cal used dollars too, so there was in any event no problem.
"Put up your hand."
Hope held up his right hand, and the booth man aimed an identification reader at it. In a moment its little screen lighted with print. HOPE HUBRIS, age 14. He had been minimally verified; that was all that was required.
The booth man touched a switch, and the laser weapon glowed. "Which game?" he asked.
Hope looked at Spirit. "Meteors," she said.
The man looked at Hope. "Meteors," Hope repeated.
Spirit put her hand on the laser. It was obvious that she was the one who was playing, but officially it was Hope. If there were a challenge, Hope would be in as much trouble as the booth man. But there would not be; Hope was playing by proxy. This was the way to get around the age restriction. It was a tacit conspiracy of silence that even the city administration accepted. No children were being corrupted here, legally.
The screen became stellar, with the stars of the galaxy showing above a city dome on a moon. "Captain!" a voice exclaimed in English, which was another standard of these Gypsies. It didn't stop those who knew only Spanish from playing, as they already understood the game. "There's a meteor shower headed for the capital city!"
"We must stop it," the bold voice of the captain replied. "Man the laser cannon. We must not let a single meteor get through, or the city is doomed."
Now the meteors showed as bright streaks. It didn't matter that no such streaks occurred in space, only in atmosphere; this was a game. They were headed right for the dome.
Spirit began firing. A laser beam speared out to strike the screen. Never mind that true lasers were invisible, except for their effects; this was another aspect of the game. The beam just missed the leading meteor. But Spirit's second shot got it, and it exploded beautifully. Already the second meteor was looming, and she got that one too.
After that the meteors came faster, sometimes by twos or threes. Spirit got them all, until one meteor didn't explode, but fissioned into two parts still headed for the dome. Spirit had to reorient the gun to strike first one, then the other, but as she did so, another meteor crashed through, and crashed into the dome. The dome exploded with a display quadruple that of a struck meteor, with fragments of buildings and even people flying outward. The game was lost.
"Damn!" Spirit swore, staring at the wreckage. Then the image faded.
"Too bad," the booth man said to Hope. "You almost got them all."
"Almost," Hope agreed, and paid over another dollar.
"You're a pretty sharp player."
"Pretty sharp," Hope agreed as the laser gun came back to life and the starry screen returned.
Now there were several spectators, as it was evident that Spirit was indeed a good shot. They were silent, so as not to distract her, but paid close attention. This game was not simple in concept, but not easy to win.
This time Spirit got all the meteors, until a group of four cruised by. She got three of them, but could not catch the fourth, and it scored on the dome.
"Four!" a spectator said as the game ended. "Is that legit?"
"Rare but legit," the booth man said. "When one person plays more than once, the subsequent games get harder. So if you want to quit now—"
Spirit looked pleadingly at Hope. "One more game," he said, paying the dollar.
The man took the dollar, but did not turn on the game right away. "Sir, I like your look," he said to Hope. "You're playing well. Let me give you and these following players a hint: you can see the bad ones coming. The clusters are brighter. So it's best to clear out all the routine ones and orient on the clusters as early as you can. It's still no easy score, but if you're sharp enough, it's possible."
"Thank you," Hope said. He knew the booth man was playing to the crowd, hoping for many more players. In fact it wouldn't bother him if Spirit won, because it would show that it could be done. But she had to earn it.
Excerpted from The Iron Maiden by Piers Anthony. Copyright © 2001 Piers Anthony. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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